There are brief moments within its 90-minute running time, where Free Fire succumbs to tedium, which slowly takes you out of the movie while you wait for something to happen. Then it goes back to business, then slows down again. For the most part, the movie alternates between bang and silence, hit and miss, limp and roll, dash and crawl, funny dialogue and stupor. I myself almost passed out one time from all my imaginary non-fatal wounds.
It could have been a one-hour movie. But with its 30 minute set-up and character sketches, and the meticulously planned and staged shoot outs that followed—unfortunately between guys and one girl who kept missing from mid-range—director Ben Wheatley is able to underline what’s wrong with most action films nowadays. They (e.g., Fast & Furious and Transformers series) are overloaded, incoherent, lack suspense and characterization and gives the audience 360 degrees of action every five minutes just to keep those with ADHD from walking out or falling asleep.
Free Fire is a well made shoot ’em up comedy, brought to life by its characters, a handful of rogues trapped inside a warehouse in an unscrupulous arms deal, and Ben Wheatley’s scrupulous direction and attention to details (i.e., there’s a very graphic scene where one character’s head get ran over by a van done with minimum to zero CGI). It absorbs you into the action (otherwise, you won’t get bored when there’s nothing happening for long stretches). Among the cast, Cillian Murphy’s IRA agent Chris, Armie Hammer’s middleman Ord, Sharlto Copley’s South African arms dealer Vernon (whose thick accent is comic gold), Sam Riley despicable Stevo, and Brie Larson’s Justine, whom I thought could have fired a couple of shots more, take the cake.
While Free Fire gives you one hour of gunfights happening in real time (if I remember correctly, slow motion was used only once—in the scene right after the first shot was fired), it never overloads your senses; it gives you time to recover, regroup, before the bullets come zinging again. It never gives you everything all at once, instead Wheatley stretches your patience for a couple of minutes, then rewards you on the next (this is true, especially, when the movie slows down to a crawl).
Some movies use shaky camera and rapid-fire editing to get you “in” the action. Oftentimes, these are used to hide non-hits, weak choreography or poorly staged action. Also, oftentimes, they’re just confusing. In Free Fire, there are also times when you’re not sure who’s shooting whom, times when things just happen so fast that you lose track of things. But not because of nauseating camera movements or poor editing. This, is what I’d assume as Wheatley’s idea of getting the audience “in” the moment. And it just makes sense. There are more than ten people inside the warehouse and it’s not easy to take account of everything and everyone amidst all the banter and the gunfire.
Like that one character in the movie, there was also a time when, “I’ve forgotten whose side I’m on”.